Shangri-La: The life, death and rebirth of an ancient Chinese town


A few days ago, I read the sad news that the ancient part of the city in Shangri-la in Yunnan Province in China had been ravaged and almost completely destroyed by a fire. I stumbled on an article about the fire half way down the page, deeply embedded in the middle section of the international news page of the local newspaper where I now live. Having visited the city myself exactly two years ago, I had to carefully reread the headline and subtext to make sure it was indeed the same obscure city. A remote city in the northwest corner of Yunnan Province called Gyalthang in Tibetan by it mainly Tibetan inhabitants, the ancient city was formally a trading post along the Southern route of the Silk Road and still serves as an isolated springboard for travel into Tibet. Known in Chinese as Zhongdian until 2001, it was renamed “Shangri-la” by the Chinese government in the hope of attracting tourists. Before moving to China, I knew nothing of the namesake for Shangri-la, a fictional Tibetan utopia in the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton, nor was I aware that there was in fact a real place bearing that name.

Although Shangri-La had apparently attracted a lot of tourists both from China and overseas in the recent years, it was almost completely shut-down for tourists when I arrived there in January 2012 with newly-made hiker friends. It was the week leading up to Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and most accommodations, shops and restaurants were shut for the winter. Ice-chilling winds blew through the empty, narrow, cobbled streets of Dukezong, the ancient part of the city. Walking gingerly along the icy roads, stray, rugged dogs escorted us through the streets as we wandered around and explored. The tucked away, elevated remoteness of Shangri-La reminded me of a frontier town in the Wild West, thanks to the lack of foreign and Chinese national big brand commercialism. Entire families putted by on tractor pulled carts, cows and wild turkeys shared the streets, and Tibetan techno pop music blared from local bars and shops. A 15 minute walk outside of the old city center was a busy market. Monks in their long auburn robes sashayed by while other locals sold brightly colored prayer flags, brass bowls and a variety of produce.  A short uphill walk behind the ancient city, prayer flags flapped from hilltop monasteries while wind whistled past my face. Lacking a skyline of tall buildings and any construction, clear views of the residential city in the valley below offered a calming backdrop. It was a welcome escape from the overpopulated chaos, noisy traffic and urban sprawl typical of other Chinese cities.

shangri-la collage

The question remains as to what will now come of the ancient part of Shangri-La. Having been branded as a tourism getaway by the Chinese government, it will most definitely be rebuilt. How will the new ancient city be reborn? Will it be completely gutted, flattened and then developed with new upmarket shopping malls, KFCs, and fancy new high rise apartment buildings similar to those popping up over other cities in China? Could the ancient city be rebuilt to resemble another Lijiang, the Unesco World Heritage city a few hours south in Yunnan that tends to be overcrowded and overpriced with its theme park depiction of the local and ancient culture? Part of Shangri-La’s charm was in its remoteness, ruggedness, and it not being another concrete replica of an ancient town fashioned by an eager developer from elsewhere in China. I do hope that the ancient town of Shangri-La will be rebuilt again. Certainly the income will help support the local economy. Here’s hoping it will be rebuilt similar to the original form as well as with a majority of input and involvement from the local population.

From a hilltop monastery overlooking the old part of Shangril-La below, a monk collects old prayer flags to burn.

From a hilltop monastery overlooking the old part of Shangril-La below, a monk collects old prayer flags to burn.


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